At the end of all my initial consults, I always get this question- what will it cost to get divorced? Sadly, no one can answer this burning question because no one can predict how many hours it will actually take to negotiate a comprehensive deal, get all the necessary documents together and tie up all the loose ends. A lot depends on your spouse, and the attorneys you both hire, and whether you all work well together to get the job done, or instead engage in petty squabbles over anything and everything.
Divorce lawyers have an ethical obligation to charge by the hour; we cannot take cases on a contingency basis tied to a percentage of the assets. Our hourly rates are based on our educational backgrounds, years of experience, and recognition with the community, and on average in the DC Area this hourly rate ranges from $300-650. This is why you really should not rely on your attorney as your therapist or life coach.
Some divorces cost as little as $800– basically 2 hours of consultation time to review an agreement already written and help with the court documents for an uncontested divorce. That is a client’s best case scenario. Then at the other extreme, I have seen nasty divorces where the parties spent over $450,000 in legal fees. Thankfully, the likelihood of a high-conflict divorce is only about 20% of all cases, so hopefully most will not have to pay a fortune to obtain their freedom.
The more clients are able to handle themselves, the less they will incur in legal fees. If the parties are able to work out major issues themselves, then the involvement of an attorney will not be very time consuming. If they can go to a mediator and split the fee to have this professional work through the issues that need to be part of a formal agreement, again the parties will be saving themselves a tremendous amount in fees. If the parties want their own attorneys but are able to envision a Collaborative Process, where everyone works together to gather the relevant information and find reasonable solutions to the issues at hand, this should also be far less expensive than engaging in full-blown litigation, where the attorneys have to issue subpeonas, conduct depositions, make multiple court appearances, and deal with trial exhibits, experts, etc.
In the end, I wish I could eliminate the huge fear of unknown legal expenses for my clients, but I cannot– because I do not control the other side or his/her attorney. At least with consults and mediation sessions, most of us can allow clients to operate in a pay-as-you model. Using the Collaborative approach we can predict that within 4 two-hour meetings you should accomplish certain things, and we can let you budget for those 4 meetings, then if a case is still pending and clients need time to obtain additional financing, we can stop the process to allow for this. Sadly, in litigation, these costs saving mechanisms cannot be applied, and large retainers are necessary to ensure sufficient funds are available to cover the extensive work that will be required of the legal professionals involved.
Ultimately, clients need to remember that the more they want to fight, the more it will cost. Only a client can decide which battles are worth pursuing– preferably without losing sight of the emotional and financial costs associated with their choices, and the impact those choices will have on the entire family perhaps for generations.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.